For the last few weeks, I’ve devoted my blog space to reflecting on ways in which African Americans in the late 1960s used memory of the Reconstruction era to ask questions about the “Second Reconstruction” of the late 1960s. I zeroed in on Lerone Bennett, historian and editor of Ebony magazine, due to the prominence of his essays in what is best thought of as a Black Public Sphere. While I’m quite fond of studying African American print culture, I also recognize that when it comes to the 20th century, there are plenty of other rich media forms that need to be included in any conception of the public sphere. Today I’d like to mention a few books on these media forms, and on the Black Public Sphere idea, that I think would be of interest to the readers of the S-USIH blog.
The Black Public Sphere, a wonderful collection of essays released by The Black Public Sphere Collective in 1995, gets at the heart of what the phrase “Black Public Sphere” means. The essays were derived from several sources: two conferences on the Black Public Sphere in 1993, and a special issue of the journal Public Culture. Containing essays by Houston Baker, Michael Dawson, and Paul Gilroy among others, the edited collection allows readers to get a nuanced interpretation of the Black Public Sphere. Anyone interested in memory and the African American community, I’d argue, would also find this book intriguing. And the cover is in itself an intriguing meditation on the Black Public Sphere. It’s a picture of Nelson Mandela at Yankee Stadium during his 1990 tour, a moment that deserves greater scrutiny as part debates among African Americans about the post-Civil Rights era and the Reagan-Bush years.
Going back to what I said earlier, media in the latter half of the 20th century encompasses several forms: print, television, radio (which is crucially important to the Black Public Sphere, and I’ll get to that later), and the internet. Books such as Black Power TV by Devorah Heitner, for instance, show the intersection of Black Power and television in the late 1960s. Heitner’s narrative showcases the ways in which local television in major cities such as New York and Chicago began to include more diverse array of voices in response to demands made by African Americans in the 1960s. Black Power TV should be cause to ask bigger questions about media and race in the 1960s and 1970s. The book also reminds us that these questions of media representation may have been asked (and answered) differently city by city, state by state. Revolution Televised by Christine Acham also asks similar questions of race and media representation, albeit on a national scale.
Of course, the Civil Rights Movement itself is often seen as a moment symbolizing the ascendancy of television as a driver and shaper of national discourse. The Race Beat, a book on newspaper coverage of the Civil Rights Movement, also argues that television news in the 1960s came of age due to exhilarating coverage of protests in the South, especially the tense and dramatic moments in Birmingham in 1963 and the Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1965. Another book that delves into television and the Civil Rights era is Aniko Bodroghkozy’s Equal Time: Television and the Civil Rights Movement. While her book does an excellent job detailing media coverage of the movement, she also makes a great contribution in examining popular television shows and their role in shaping debates about race. For example, she reminds readers of the short-lived, but well ahead of its time, television show East Side, West Side, which starred George C. Scott and Cicely Tyson.
Finally, a word on radio. One of the stories waiting to be told about the 1970s and 1980s has to be the continued impact of African American radio personalities. I’ve already become convinced that my dissertation (which, in this preliminary stage, is going to be an examination of intellectuals and race after 1965 using a civil sphere framework) will include a section on radio and the African American community. Speaking to a professor last week, we were both convinced that understanding Black radio personalities was key to getting to know more about how African Americans themselves viewed current events. I think of figures today such as Tom Joyner and Roland Martin (just thinking in regards to a national stage) who have a large following within the Black community. While I don’t want to start debates on who is and isn’t a public intellectual, or what precisely constitutes intellectual history, I do think that radio personalities offer us a chance to delve deeper into concepts of the public sphere in the second half of the 20th century. Understanding how people get their news and entertainment on a daily basis has, I think, great bearing on how they also understand larger cultural and intellectual debates.